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Let's Take A Look At What Folks Think Of Interior Secretary Zinke's Surge Pricing Scheme

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More than 100,000 comments were submitted on Interior Secretary Zinke's proposal to use surge pricing at 17 parks during their high season, and the bulk seemed opposed to the plan/NPS

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke believes a surge-pricing scheme for entrance to 17 national parks during the height of travel season can help whittle away the $11.3 billion or so maintenance backlog mired around the fiscal neck of the National Park Service. 

The proposal would more than double entrance fees at the 17 parks for nearly half the year and raise an estimated $70 million to help address the estimated $11.3 billion maintenance backlog. The proposed $70 fee for a week, if finalized, would apply to Yellowstone, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Acadia, Mount Rainier, Joshua Tree, Shenandoah, and Zion national parks.

Secretary Zinke has called complaints over his proposal "baloney."

Already, attorneys general from at least 10 states have told the secretary that they're opposed to it, telling Park Service Deputy Director Mike Reynolds that there has been no rational explanation for such a move and Congress should shoulder the responsibility for addressing the backlog, not the public.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who was thrilled to see Secretary Zinke recommend that Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments be downsized, and then watched in person as President Trump acted on that recommendation from the steps of the Beehive State's capitol, told the Interior secretary that surge pricing would "devastate" his small town businesses while having negligible impact on the maintenance backlog.

What about the general public?

With more than 109,000 comments received on the proposal, Traveler doesn't have the resources to read each and every one in a timely fashion. But scrolling through the comments, words such as "ridiculous," "absurd," "discriminatory," "horrifying," and "horrible" popped up, sometimes more than a few times. Many writers expressed concern about pricing some folks out of the parks with this approach, while others thought Congress needed to do a better job funding the Park Service.

It also quickly became obvious that more than a few comments were repetitive, form-generated comments.

For instance, Judy Cacioppo, of Bessemer, Alabama, wrote the following:

"Dear Secretary Zinke,

"I am writing to oppose your proposed increase of visitor fees in our country's National Park System. The proposed increases would affect visitors to 17 of the most visited parks. In so doing, it would effectively price out millions of individuals and prevent them from experiencing what many refer to as our country's "best idea."

"The National Park Service says that the parks 'belong to everyone,' but these increases are contrary to that professed ideal. The most recent Park Service commissioned demographic survey found that members of underrepresented groups pointed to the high cost of national parks as barriers to visitation. Radically increasing the entrance fees puts the experience of enjoying these public spaces further out of reach of these communities.

"This not only hamstrings the NPS's diversity efforts but stands in the way of conservation. Protecting our wildlife and wild places is made more difficult when the public has no connection to these places. By working to increase attendance and make our parks accessible to everyone, the National Park Service could help to assure the next generation values the natural world and is willing to work to protect it.

"The Department of Interior's public statements regarding this proposed fare increase suggest it is to address a maintenance backlog. If this is a priority, President Trump's proposed 13 percent cut to the National Park Service's discretionary budget should be revised, rather than saddling visitors with these costs.

Please reconsider this proposed increase and work to make our country's one-of-a-kind public lands more accessible to recreational users of all classes and income levels. Thank you for your consideration."

Lynn Price of South Lake Tahoe, California, wrote the same comment. As did Devin Henry of Nichols, New York, and dozens (Hundreds? Thousands?) of others. Many, many members of the National Parks Conservation Association also used form responses to register their opposition.

But not all were form comments.

"Dear Acting Director Mike Reynolds,

"As an avid outdoor recreationist, I'm writing to express my strong concern to the proposed National Park Service fee increase to $70. I understand the need to address decades of systematic underfunding of the land management agencies and would be willing to do my part to support the national parks and public lands that I enjoy. However, this fee hike also strikes me as unreasonable, particularly when proposed in conjunction with overall Department of Interior budget cuts to the tune of $1.5 billion and proposals to massively ramp up energy development. I strongly believe that access to our public lands is a right that should be enjoyed by all Americans and entrance fees should never be set at a level where people are priced out of enjoying our common lands and waters.

Sincerely, Dr Leslie Hamdorf, Denver"

And another, unnamed writer, said, "I thought $25 to get into a park was ludicrous. $75? That just proves that the NPS is out of control.  Infrastructure?  Cut down on it.  We are not going to these parks to see beautifully paved roads and beautiful lodges. Get rid of the visitor centers. Get rid of the fees all together so you don't have to pay that poor person at the gate booth. Less is more. This is public land, treat it that way. I think that the NPS should be prohibited from charging any fees - basically turn everything into a national forest.  Congress can then appropriate what is necessary."

Another said, "I am writing to express my disapproval for the targeted fee increases. The first obvious argument against this scheme is that it prices out the poorest citizens of our country who want to visit these great parks, the very people who own and maintain them through taxes. Access to parks should be priced within reasonable limits to allow working families to enjoy the same natural spaces that will only become the playgrounds of the rich should your proposed fees go into effect. The second, and perhaps more important argument, is that this pricing scheme will drastically reduce annual visitors to the National Parks, and that outcome is not in the long term strategic interests of the Park System. Lower attendees per year adds weight to potential future arguments for less funding, and for land from the parks to be reclaimed for commercial purposes. I feel this proposed fee structure is short-sighted and out of touch with the common citizen's needs for nature and recreation."

"I am strongly against the proposed fee increases for our most popular national parks. Raising the price of admission contributes to the socio-economic inequality already present in the parks by placing individuals and families of lower socio-economic status at a disadvantage when considering a visit to our National Park System," read another comment. "Low-income families and individuals cannot afford a $70 entrance fee, particularly when the majority of park visitors spend less than one day in any given park. Rocky Mountain National Park is a prime example for this. The park is easily accessible for families within the Colorado front range- from rural families in Weld County to urban city dwellers in the Denver metro.

"If the parks system enacts the proposed fee increase, families who are within easy access to this park and could at this time consider the park a cheap alternative to other recreational and social opportunities will be priced out of using our parks. As someone who regularly purchases either annual park specific passes or the annual National Park Pass, I find the proposed price point for the day fee incredulous. Where is the incentive for my family or friends to visit a park when we need to go separately?

"This summer I took 20 family members on a day hike in RMNP. We needed 4 cars to get into the park. Sure my pass got one car in, but if the fees increase it would've cost us an additional $210 for the experience. That’s stupid. Many of my family members on the hike had never been to the park before, nor had they ever gone hiking in the mountains. If the fees were increased, they could not have gone on this once-in-a-lifetime experience. They would’ve lost out on an opportunity to learn about and cherish our park system. The National Park System was put in place to protect and preserve our land for future generations and for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. Not the richest among us. All the people. Your proposed fee increase is a direct result of our Administration’s apathy towards upholding the promises made by the parks system to the American people. This is not the best way to raise funds for the massive back log in maintenance the parks are experiencing. Reallocate funding from elsewhere because putting that burden on park goers alone will not solve the issue."

"Why is it that there is always enough money for bombs, which can be heard while standing in Joshua Tree National Park, emanating from the nearby Marine base, but never enough to fund the parks?" wondered another.

And then there was this:

"So, I guess all the marketing talk in your 100 Anniversary Celebration about appealing to the lower income demographics was all just that. Empty talk. With that jump in costs, not only will the numbers of visitors drop off (which means you won't make more money!), the demographic you wanted to target is just excluded totally. The great outdoors is - apparently - only accessible to the wealthy. Boo to this plan."

But not everyone opposed the proposed fee increase, though their comments were hard to find among all the opposition. What they often expressed was the need to properly maintain the parks, and frequently voiced the opinion that current fees were too low.

"I feel that the raise in price is long overdue. I've read comments on how it will keep people out who don’t respect the park as well as people saying it’s another reason to take our money," wrote one individual. "I strongly disagree with both. Yellowstone National Park is an amazing wonder and we are lucky to be able to experience it, but it doesn’t take care of itself. It needs us to help keep it alive and thriving for generations to come. I say raise it! Keep the information and protection coming. I plan to enjoy it until the day I’m gone."

Another person who supported the price increase nevertheless thought a better way to raise revenues would be to address daily entrance fees, not weekly fees.

"I am a frequent camper and outdoor enthusiast," they wrote. "I completely agree with revenue concerns for national parks and support increases as necessary to maintain the parks.  I also would without a doubt end up buying an annual pass rather than pay $40 - $70 for a single entry (would already have one but we don't usually end up visiting parks that we are not already camping in).  While the annual pass is a good deal already I feel like the day passes vs. annual pass balance is where the most change would take place.  From a consumer standpoint, I am fine with higher rates during peak times and less people would be a bonus.  From a park-to-park standpoint, my question would be where the funds are allocated.  If the park fees go directly to the park visited and annual pass fees go into a overall fund then some of the parks needing maintenance due to high traffic may actually see a decrease in funds (without additional allocation from park services) because basically someone could visit 1 park 1 time for nearly the same price as an annual pass."

Another comment voiced the belief that higher user fees would prevent parks from becoming commercialized.

"I think this is a great idea and very reasonable. The National Parks have been underfunded by the government for a very long time. Infrastructure issues can't be ignored for ever. I recognize that for some people this may be too expensive and may prevent some from visiting, but I am happy to support the parks in this way particularly since the needed funds are not coming any other way. I don't want the National Parks commercialized by big corporate interests."

A traveler to both U.S. and Canadian parks voiced the view that those parks in the United States are showing wear and tear and need to be better maintained.

"I have noticed that some of the parks are beginning to show their age and are in need of maintenance and upgrading. An example of this is the upgrading of the water, sewer and roads at Matthews Arm Campground in Shenandoah National Park," they wrote. "This maintenance was long overdue and is currently in the process of completion. The reason given for the delay was lack of appropriate funding from the government in past years.

"Another example, the fine stonework at Shenandoah and Great Smoky done 80 years ago by the CCC is in need of attention, particularly pointing the masonary work. I feel that it is imperative that a permanent plan be put in place to properly and adequately fund both national park and national forest recreation areas for the present and future public enjoyment. It seems logical that user fees be a large part of the equation and should reflect the actual cost of operation. I fully support the proposed increase in users fees, and also increase in federal funding if necessary to provide for the national treasures that our parks are. Keep up the good work!"

"Yes. Raise the visitor's fee," wrote another, who added an interesting twist: an "opt-out option" for the higher fee.

"People who use a facility should pay for their use, or at least a substantial portion of it. Your effort is a responsible one for stewards of our parks," they continued. "If folks lack the funds, than provide an opt-out option. That is fair. Their tax dollars when they earned more (I am thinking of retirees) paid most of the costs. (You already have a senior citizen's pass, but it requires substantial advance planning. Most folks will pay the full fee. The increased amounts are reasonable. Your proposed fees will barely buy lunch at a downtown restaurant of most of America's major cities. I have visited 10 of the 17 parks listed. Your fees presently are charity. They cannot begin to capture the value of the experience of the parks. And virtually everyone visiting our parks knows this."

"I write to support the peak seasons entrance fee proposal," another person wrote. "My family and I are frequent visitors of our country's national parks, and I myself will have visited 12 parks this year. I believe that park accessibility for individuals of all backgrounds is critical to sustaining the National Park System's mission as a shared natural treasure for the country.  However, I also recognize that NPS faces strains on its resources as its seeks to meet increased visitor levels and sustain a standard of maintenance among our parks. With this in mind, I am happy to support the well-tailored proposal to secure additional revenue for these purposes."

Again, the comments above are a random sampling of more than 109,000 submitted to the Park Service to consider. How they'll be weighed, both individually and as a whole, remains to be seen. There were 2.8 million comments made on the proposal to alter national monuments, with a large majority against any changes, but that didn't sway the administration.

The review process is expected to be completed in mid- to late-February.

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Comments

My husband and I have visited the majority of the big parks in the west.  They are the crown jewels of our country.  Here are a few of my thoughts on all this. Although I hate to see the parks priced out of range for a majority of Americans, the current fee is way too low.  Why are the parks always on the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to allocating funds by the government?  They (the parks) don't take care of themselves.  I am amazed - and I mean "really amazed" that the parks are able to use what piddlley funds are available to them to keep the parks in the pristine condition that they do.  And I am talking from the very smallest parks to the very largest.  Regarding the comment to take out the visitor's centers, entrance kiosks, etc. - just where would you go to the bathroom on your long drive through the park?  And who would keep up the roads - patching, plowing, etc.  The visitor's centers are there to help you understand what the park is all about and why it is important, how you can get the best experience out of your visit, etc.  

     When our current president says he is going to make America great again, it is clear he does not mean by helping the park system - which is the greatest part of America that there is - except for maybe its people.  Rather, he does not care a whit about them.  Instead of giving the wealthy that grandious tax cut, they should have donated all of that money back into the park system.  Now that is what I call making America great again.  

     I propose a non-profit put together a national "go-fund-me" for the park system (without government involvement) and somehow get that money back into the hands of the parks.  And do it once a year.  And then, maybe, just maybe, you wouldn't have to raise the entrance fee out of sight for the average American.  (And again....the lower and middle class get stuck shoring up this country!)

 


Although comments to the administration, when they are asking for comments, don't count for anything if they are not substantive (substantive may not count either), what is the problem with form letters?  Why do they seem to count even less?

Even when the large majority of comments are against a proposal, it seems to have no meaning, so why do we comment, and how can we make our comments count? 


I guess, argalite, it depends on what you think the comments are supposed to accomplish.  If you are expecting them to reflect a 
"vote", I it is no wonder you are disappointed.  I believe the comments are to expose differing points of view or alternative approaches.  Once someone has raised a point for consideration, sending 1,000 more form letters, or dozens of people standing up at a meeting saying the same thing is pointless and perhaps even counterproductive.


Remember this when elections 2018 and especially 2020 roll around.


The issue of public comments on government activities has nothing to do with the current administration.  People have been bitching about not being listened to for ages primarily because they don't understand the purpose of the public comments.  


 The abuse of form letters and fake comments by the delusional environmental groups over the past decade have ruined the process. You guys have no one to blame but yourselves and you know I'm talking about Audubon, Sierra Club, NPCA, Defenders of Wildlife, Southern Environmental Law Center, etc...


EC, my own experince is that public comments do make a difference, provided the powers at be have not already predetermined the decision. The purpose of the NEPA requirements is the hope that public sector officials along with the political appointees of any administration would want public comment and the best information and science available to make deisions,  then present a comphrehensive range of alternatives before a decision is made. Many citizens do understand the purpose of public comment and in many cases it has made a difference. However, you are right, many times it is just a hoop to jump through because, as stated earlier, the decison has already been made. The issue is usually decided in court provided the ctizens have the ways and means to challenge it.  


Ron, I think we are in full agreement.  The key point is the "public comment" does not equal "public vote".  The powers that be may have a predisposition ("the decision has already been made")  but if the public comment doesn't bring up facts and considerations to overturn that decision, a  ten thousand letters saying "no" isn't going to make a difference.


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